Fifth in the blog/podcast series Accent through the keyhole. Scroll down for the mp3 download.
So who’s this accent creep you mention in the title?
It’s a process, not a person. This post is about how accent evolves over time - so gradually that we aren’t usually aware of it, like the way glaciers move. But occasionally, you get a glimpse: TV has been around long enough now for us to hear how people spoke in the middle of the last century, and it’s weird how old-fashioned they sound! Americans sound half English, and English sound quaintly brisk and clipped, like a parody of themselves.
Makes you wonder how accents may have sounded even further back in the past.
Yes. There seems to be an assumption that people always spoke RP (received pronunciation) as we know it today. Certainly, that’s the tradition when it comes to putting on Shakespeare plays. But why is that? Is it perhaps because 1. RP is the British prestige accent of reference and 2. Shakespeare’s work is Britain’s national treasure, and consequently 3. we honour it with the finest RP? However, it’s not very realistic. Using evidence from, among other things, rhyme and scan, historical linguists have been able to reconstruct a more likely Shakespearian accent. Linguist David Crystal calls this OP (original pronunciation).
How does Original Pronunciation sound?
Well, David Crystal’s actor son Ben performed the famous Hamlet soliloquy to be or not to be on the BBC 4 radio show Word of Mouth. At one point during the performance, there is this passage:
To die, to sleep
To sleep perchance to dream: aye, there’s the rub
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
(You’ll hear this on the podcast). Notice that in this passage, there are a number of examples of the vowel digraphs ‘ee’ and ‘ea’ – treacherous spellings that drive our students to despair. Why, they say, is English spelling such an unreliable guide to pronunciation? Well, it turns out that in OP, it was more reliable. The ‘ee’ is as it appears – simply an elongated version of ‘e’. Not like today, when ‘ee’ represents a vowel sound entirely unrelated to ‘e’. Other things you may notice is that the ‘r’ is pronounced in words like perchance, and the ‘h’ is pronounced in words like what. So the pronunciation is closer to the spelling than it is now.
So you mean spelling and pronunciation have been parting company over time?
Yes, it seems that way. If we go back to the glacier metaphor, accent is the moving ice and spelling is the unmoving rock beneath it. This has an interesting consequence. When our students (mis)pronounce words as they are spelt, they may unwittingly be reconstructing how they would have sounded historically. If enough students persisted in this (mis)pronunciation, then by sheer weight of numbers, they could form a trend in accent evolution. The accent glacier could start to creep backwards, in the direction of spelling!
Maybe we can get ahead of the trend. Instead of correcting our students when they say steak as stay-ak, we could pronounce it that way ourselves!
Interesting idea, but I guess you’ve got to teach to the current reality rather than to a possible future one. Accent creep is a law unto itself, so who knows which way it’s going to go? However there are a couple of points we could make relating to all this. First of all, we need to remember the influence of spelling on student’s pronunciation. Many of these non-native users will have come to the language through the written form, whether we like it or not. We can’t simply dismiss English spelling as being too chaotic to bother with – we have to help our students make sense of it.
Right. And your second point?
Well, this one’s a little more abstract. It has been said that sometimes, the development of an individual may resemble the evolution of the entire species. It’s interesting to think that the development of an individual student’s accent in English may resemble the accent creep of the entire language. Many students will begin with a spelt pronunciation and gradually move away from it, as happened with the language as a whole. In other words, we could talk about accent creep at an individual level. The ‘accent creep’ label captures the way that the process of developing an accent in English is very gradual, and if teachers can have any influence on it, this is likely to be in indirect or unexpected ways. As I said, accent creep is a law unto itself!
Last Week: The Bad Boy of English Pronunciation
Next Week: Getting Rid of your Accent